Vancouver seen a century ago
That friendly woman waving to us (above) is seen
for a fraction of a moment in a film taken in Vancouver exactly
100 years ago. On May 7, 1907 a Seattle film maker named William
Harbeck came up to Vancouver to make a movie. That six-minute,
silent, black-and-white movie is the earliest we have of the city.
It is a fascinating glimpse into the citys past.
To make the film more widely accessible, the Vancouver
Historical Society is working to package this unique film with an
updated 2007 version of it. The two films, made a century apart,
will be put onto a DVD called City Reflections: Vancouver
19072007. Youll be able to see them, on a split
screen, at the same time . . . travelling along the same streets
at the same speed. More on that project toward the end of this article
. . . and more on the remarkable fate awaiting William Harbeck.
The BC Electric Railway Co. laid on a special streetcar,
and Harbeckhis camera firmly bolted downstood at the
front. Then, hand-cranking the camera at a steady rate, he is off.
The car rattles north along Granville Street from Georgia down to
Hastings, turns east onto Hastings (the photo above shows the street
just before that turn) and heads toward Carrall. Until 1922, were
still driving on the left side of the street, remember. That fellow
holding the little bag is hurrying to get out of our way.
||A young Emily Carr [Photo:
BC Archives Detail of Call Number H-02813]
This little movie is packed with interest. At one
point in its journey the streetcar passes 570 Granville Street.
Up on the second floor of that building, according to the city directory
of the time, was the studio of Miss Emily Carr, artist.
A long stretch
The film carries us along Hastings, then Carrall,
Cordova, Cambie, Robson (all houses, not a shop to be seen) and
Davie. The streets are boiling with people, horse-drawn carts and
bicycles. (We see precisely one automobile along the route . . .
and its parked.) The Vancouver of 1907 was a thriving, energetic
city. The population was climbing rapidly, jumping from the 27,000
in the 1901 census to the 100,000 of 1910. We see in these flickering
images a city that is in the process of quadrupling its population
in 10 years.
Local historian John Atkin, whose neighborhood
walks are rightfully famous here, is writing the commentary for
the film, helped by fellow City Reflections historian Chuck Davis.
Some short chunks of the movie are missing, not surprising after
a century, but whats there is exciting. It was thanks to Colin
Preston, the CBCs archivist in Vancouver, that we have
The story of how it was found is an adventure in
itself. A dozen or so years ago it was found with a pile of other
ancient short films in the collection of a recently deceased Australian
film buff. The people who found it screened it and, thinking it
was an American city being shown, shipped it off to the Library
of Congress in Washington, DC. They looked at it and said, Thats
not an American city. Theyre driving on the wrong side of
the street. They decided, correctly, it was a Canadian city
and forwarded it to the National Archives in Ottawa. Someone there
watched it carefully and determined the city was Vancouver. The
National Archives then set about the laborious task of restoring
and preserving the film frame-by-frame. It wasnt long before
the CBC's Colin Preston had a copy.
And not long after that, thanks to Colin, so did
the Vancouver Historical Society. Wouldnt it be great,
the VHS asked itself, to make a 2007 version of the film,
going along the same streets at the same speed, then put both films
onto a DVD?
The VHS will make the DVD available at a nominal
cost this fall. Youll be able to see the original film by
itself, then the modern-day version, or run both split-screen at
the same time to see the changes a century has brought to the city.
But the DVD will have much more. VHS board member and City Reflections
Production Manager Jim McGraw explains: We see the
DVD as a time capsule. Just as we in 2007 find the original film
so fascinating, with its views of a completely transformed Vancouver,
so Vancouverites of 20 years, 50 years, or 100 years from now will
find the 2007 version fascinating. Were going to include material
from both centuries on prices and wages, on building styles and
materials, on fashions, entertainment, the media and more. People
watching our DVD a hundred years from now may be astonished to learn
we could buy a house for just $800,000.
The City Reflections project is costly. The
non-profit VHS is appealing for financial assistance from individuals
and firms to help make possible this unique look at Vancouver 100
years apart. Expenses include equipment, transportation, insurance,
lawyers, editing time, printing and police (needed to block off
some streets during the tapingalthough such disruption will
be brief). More than $20,000 has already been raised from various
sources. Many in the city's film and television community have also
contributed equipment or their time.
More than a dozen volunteers are working on the
City Reflections project. Film industry veteran Mary-Lou
Storey has been instrumental in working out the surprisingly
complicated logistics of shooting on city streets. Ernst Schneider,
one of our techie volunteers, has precisely timed out
the 1907 film so the new version will match, and has been one of
the crew advising on the technical equipment needed. Another is
Jason Vanderhill, who also captured the images you see on
this site and who has produced astonishingly attractive posters
and postcards. Jason will do the design work for the package. Wes
Knapp of the VHSs City Reflections Committee says:
All contributors will be part of the film's legacy, a time-capsule
that takes us into the next 100 years. The DVD will be distributed
widely, acknowledging all who have made this stunning DVD project
possible. And thanks to Andrew Martin, Researcher Extraordinaire
in Special Collections at the Vancouver Public Library, for that
engaging image at the top of the page. That waving lady would have
had no idea we'd be acknowledging her gesture a century after she
made it. Andrew, incidentally, has also done very extensive research
on William Harbeck himself and that will be included on the DVD.
If youd like more information on how to become
a supporter of Vancouver Reflections (contributions so far
have ranged from $20 to $10,000) drop me a note at email@example.com.)
As for William Harbeck, he had one more interesting
film assignment. While in Europe, he was hired by Englands
White Star Line to record shipboard life during the maiden voyage
of the company's huge new liner. Those films however, were never
to be seen. Harbeck was one of hundreds who lost their lives when
the White Star Line's Titanic sank on the night of April
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